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Search is on after Ike

Emergency crews in Galveston look for those who ignored evacuation orders.

September 14, 2008|David Zucchino and P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writers

GALVESTON COUNTY, TEXAS — Rescue crews fanned out across the flooded Gulf Coast on Saturday, searching for tens of thousands of Texans who ignored mandatory evacuation orders just before Hurricane Ike crashed ashore in the night with howling winds and a powerful tidal surge.

Ike made landfall with 110-mph winds about 2 a.m. near the barrier island of Galveston, then blew through Houston, flooding streets, downing power lines and smashing the windows of downtown skyscrapers. Later in the day, it weakened to a tropical storm as it moved northeast toward Arkansas.

More than 3 million people were left without power by the 500-mile-wide storm, and utilities warned that it could be days or weeks before electricity is restored. Thousands more residents were feared stranded by swirling floodwaters. Authorities said they could not provide an accurate tally of the storm's damage because many roads were impassable and entire neighborhoods were cut off.

At least three deaths were listed as storm-related. Officials feared that the toll could mount, depending on the fates of people caught in areas that were supposed to be evacuated.

The storm's top tidal surge was 15 feet, well below the 20 to 25 feet predicted. But damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure was widespread, and the economic toll was considerable because the region's huge oil, natural gas and petrochemical industries were shut down.

Preliminary industry estimates put damage at $8 billion or more. Consumers nationwide faced rising gasoline prices, topping $5 a gallon briefly in some areas.

"The good news is that the surge was nowhere near as large as we thought it was going to be," Gov. Rick Perry said. "But there's still plenty of damage out there."

President Bush declared a major disaster in 29 Texas counties and 10 Louisiana counties and ordered immediate federal aid.

In addition to the millions without power in Texas, 140,000 people in Louisiana lost electricity, adding to the 60,000 still without power since Hurricane Gustav struck over Labor Day.

Rep. John Culberson, a Republican who represents some of the hardest-hit areas of Houston, called the power situation "a very significant problem."

"What do you do about perishable foods?" he asked. "How do you keep milk? Eggs? What do you do when people have ventilators that require electricity, and they don't have that in their home for weeks?"

By some estimates, as many as 140,000 of the nearly 1 million residents ordered to leave low-lying areas along the coast elected to stay home and brave the storm. Angry officials said their refusal to leave endangered rescue crews now having to use high-water vehicles, boats and helicopters to find and retrieve stranded residents.

"There was a mandatory evacuation, and people didn't leave, and that is very frustrating because now we are having to deal with everybody who did not heed the order," said Steve LeBlanc, Galveston's city manger. "This is why we do it, and they had enough time to get out. It's just unfortunate that they decided to stay."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, "When you stay behind in the face of a warning, not only do you jeopardize yourself, you put the first responders at risk as well. Now, we're going to see this play out."

Perry said the state had mounted "the largest search-and-rescue capability in the history of Texas." LeBlanc estimated that 40% of Galveston's 57,000 residents ignored the evacuation order.

More than 120 people were rescued by late afternoon, the U.S. Coast Guard reported, with search teams continuing to plow through debris-clogged floodwaters looking for others. Most rescues came on Galveston Island and the adjacent Bolivar Peninsula, Lt. Cmdr. Shawn Decker said.

"We will be doing this probably for the next week or more. We hope it doesn't turn into a recovery," said Sheriff's Sgt. Dennis Marlow in Orange County, where more than 300 people had to be rescued from flooded homes -- "a drop in the bucket," the deputy said.

Perry's office said 940 people had been rescued statewide. A stranded freighter with 22 crewmen in the Gulf of Mexico made it through the storm safely and was awaiting a tugboat, the Coast Guard reported.

Among the hardest-hit areas was Galveston, where wind-whipped waves topped a protective sea wall. Homes burned unattended during the peak of the storm because firefighters could not reach them. At least 17 buildings collapsed, authorities said.

Fishing boats, pleasure boats, plywood and other debris scattered by the hurricane blocked the southbound lanes of Interstate 45 on the causeway leading in and out of Galveston. Crews worked through the day to clear the roadway.

Ike left downtown Houston a ghost town. Police barricaded streets that glistened with broken glass blasted from office towers by Ike's Category 2 winds. Sidewalks and roadways were crisscrossed by felled trees and power lines, and debris swirled through the streets.

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